[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
What with Covid and being semi-retired, I had plenty of reading time in 2021. In particular, I got to the final volumes of multiple long-running literary franchises. (Some of those final volumes had been published years before.) I think that every series listed here is a good investment of your time. Two warnings: It’s mostly pretty mainstream, and kind of sci-fi heavy. Quick table of contents: Broken Earth, The Expanse, Merchant Princes/Empire Games, Neapolitan Novels, The Sandman, Sandman Slim, Trickster Trilogy.
I offer links for each work: Amazon, because it’s convenient and if you follow these it might help sell panties and thus get my family free books, and Alibris, because they seem to be about helping independent booksellers (although their ownership is opaque).
Now, in alphabetical order…
Broken Earth · Premise: On a planet plagued by destructive seismic activity, some people can control earthquakes with their minds; they are feared and persecuted. We follow the adventures of three such women in a time of high crisis.
Each volume of this trilogy won N.K. Jemisin the Hugo award for the year it was published. What’s great about it is the complexity and believability of the characters, and the immersive intensity of the action; once you start reading you can’t stop.
What’s not so great (for me anyhow) was the slightly shaky world-building, my suspension of disbelief wavered every so often. Put any internal knowledge of physics on the back shelf and you’ll have fun reading these.
Best among these at: Taking you to really weird and intense places and leaving you with a strong impression of what it felt and smelled like to be there.
The Expanse · Premise: Human civilization has spread across the Solar System and is beset by empire-building and colonialism. On an asteroid, an alien artifact is discovered, with momentous consequences; plenty enough for nine books and six TV seasons. We follow the adventures of a half-dozen or so lead characters and their doughty spacecraft, the Rocinante.
I mean, either you like Space Opera or you don’t. If you do, you’ll really like the work of James S.A. Corey, the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Also, the TV series (its final season just shipping as I write this) is really very good.
The biggest criticism I can offer is that there’s a little too much talk about what the characters are thinking and feeling, could have been shown not told.
Best among these at: Clever plot construction, space battles.
Merchant Princes/Empire Games · Premise: Our Earth has multiple timelines, similar to each other but different in interesting ways; certain people (and eventually, machines) are able to move between them.
There are a whole lot of books here! After writing the first few, author Charles Stross anthologized and reorganized a bit, so you have to do a bit of work figuring out what to buy to move from one end to the other. I’m a little surprised nobody’s taken this to TV yet, there are loads of juicy parts for good actors.
The thing about Stross is that he wants the audience to have a good time, and you get the sense that he’s having fun too. So at no point is there a feeling that anything’s taking itself too seriously. Loads of amusing characters and surprising situations and clever twists of fate.
Best among these at: Being convincingly set in the current real world, plus amusing variations. Also, nuclear explosions. Lots of nuclear explosions!
Neapolitan Novels · Premise: Two women grow up in a seedy part of Naples, then each makes a lot of bad choices as they move through their twentieth-century Italian/European lives.
Author Elena Ferrante is pseudonymous, although there has been a journalistic exposé which convincingly claims to have identified her.
Now, a confession: I haven’t actually finished the final book in the quartet, The Lost Child, because I got so mad at one of the characters (did I mention bad choices?) that I would have thrown the book across the room except for it was a Kindle. I actually think this is a symptom of it being a really good book. And I will go back and finish it.
The quality of the writing (and necessarily the translation) just can’t be praised too highly. This is beautiful, beautiful, stuff. The texture of life is examined and unwoven with a precision and intensity that I have never encountered anywhere else. Every page of the narrative is totally convincing: Yes, these people were in these situations and did these things and felt those things. The situations, growing as they do out of working-class bad-neighborhood society, are as exotic to most educated readers as any outer-space battle; except for being real.
There’s a minor geek-interest side-plot: One of the protagonists works her way out poverty via the IBM System/3, an important 1970’s piece of computer history.
Best among these at: Raw emotional intensity without loss of realism.
The Sandman · Premise: Morpheus, or Dream, is one of the seven Endless, along with Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium (formerly Delight), and Destruction (also known as ‘The Prodigal’). Dream is a complex character, not terribly admirable. Any attempt to say more is going either to be inadequate or require ten thousand words to get started up.
These graphic novels, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by a legion of wonderful artists, were published between 1989 and 1996. I’m really not big on graphic novels but I read Season of Mists on paper once many years ago; at the time, it didn’t change my mind about comic books. After buying a Samsung S7+ with a large and fabulous screen, on impulse I bought the whole 12-volume omnibus.
I just can’t say enough good things about the Kindle presentation of The Sandman on a big bright tablet; it was maybe the most intense reading experience I’ve had in years. It took me three months to get through this, and while it’s long, one reason was that sometimes I just needed a rest.
Among other things, the Kindle app helps deal with fanciful/explosive full-page compositions by gliding through the dialog bubbles one at a time in the right order. Not being a native comic-book citizen, I found this terrifically helpful.
Anyhow, the writing is fabulous, distinguished by its high velocity: You move from one frame to the next and realize that a whole lot of stuff must have happened and Gaiman hasn’t bothered to fill in the details because there’s enough there to deduce them. I admire this; and anyhow, the books are plenty long enough.
One small criticism of the big omnibus edition is the self-indulgent front and back matter for each volume, with fulsome praise from a panoply of famous names. No value is added and I just paged through them after the first couple.
Um, trigger warnings. I mean, all the trigger warnings, there is some extremely dark, brutal, awful stuff in here; I also took a reading break one week when I was having a tough time and just didn’t need the blackness.
I wonder if I now like graphic novels? Or perhaps this is entirely sui generis.
Best among these at: Making utterly strange and phantasmagorical scenarios believable. Delighting the eyes.
Sandman Slim · Premise: James Stark returns to Earth after a decade in Hell. He is a monster who kills monsters. And, it turns out, something of a sensitive new-age guy when he’s not. Love, romance, and extreme violence.
This is author Richard Kadrey’s only real hit. The twelfth novel, which just came out, is advertised as the last, so we’ll see what he can do next. This series, to be honest, is perhaps less ambitious than some of the others here but it’s fun and you can’t spend all your time reading Ferrante, can you?
Stark is a really fine piece of character creation, and not the only one in this series, there are loads of interesting people and supernatural creatures, well-distributed across gender and other demographic divisions. Also, Kadrey has a major talent for dialogue; I’m not saying Elmore Leonard, but it’s not crazy to mention them in the same sentence.
And there’s action, lots of extremely violent action, in which many terribly undesirable creatures come to bad, messy ends, and then also other players of whom the reader will have grown fond. But in these books, you can after all come back from Hell and various other afterlife scenarios.
The world-building is necessarily somewhat theological and frankly ridiculous, but once you stop taking it seriously that’s not a problem.
For supernatural thrillers, these are nicely grounded, specifically in Los Angeles and its reflection in Hell. Just a taste: Stark is having a conversation with Lucifer (yes, that Lucifer) walking around in LA, and they stop for huge sloppy greasy burritos from a food truck. Lucifer is wearing a beautiful white linen suit and manages to eat the whole burrito with absolutely no food stains. Now that’s devilish.
Best among these at: Snappy dialogue.
The Trickster · Jared is an indigenous high-school student in Kitimat, BC who’s got problems with family and addiction and school, despite his successful weed-cookie business. His mother is a real piece of his work and his father… well, there’s the story, his father is probably a Trickster, a powerful and malevolent supernatural creature with so many children they have to self-organize on Facebook. Jared eventually ends up in Vancouver at community college, making donuts for money and pursuing a struggle with unnatural enemies that builds to an apocalyptic climax.
Author Eden Robinson is, like Jared, from Kitimat and indigenous. She claims she was trying to write a “trashy reservation romance” but it got out of control and became three pretty big thick novels full of teen angst and magical violence.
There was a CBC-TV series that managed to deliver a lot of the Trickster flavor while wandering way away from the books’ plot-lines. I enjoyed it but it has apparently fallen apart after just one season partly because the director’s claims of indigenous heritage came into question.
This delivers you-are-there flavor for a lot of places that nobody will ever go and is bulging with lovable personalities. Most people are kind and decent, some are monstrous, and Ms Robinson has fun with both flavors. An entirely entertaining read end-to-end, often hysterically coffee-snorting funny. And also with plenty to teach about our indigenous people and the realities they face.
At this point, it may be a little surprising when I say that I enjoyed this series more than any of the others here. Granted, it’s possibly because it takes place partly in my home-town. But these are outstanding books.
Best among these at: Taking you to interesting real places that you’ve never been, and imaginary ones too. Making you laugh so hard the other people in the room will want to know if you’re OK.